Monty Roberts is famed for popularizing the method he copyrighted “Join-Up”, a method by which a human trainer can take a horse, often frightened, wild or aggressive, and have them following them quietly and submissively in a relatively short period of time. The method was considered so revolutionary that the Queen of England promoted it, and now thousands of horse owners and trainers around the world use some variation of the technique under the general moniker of “Natural Horsemanship”.
Join-Up involves chasing the horse around the round pen with elevated or “predatory” body language, and often with a whip, flag, or carrot-stick as well, until the horse shows signs of what is deemed “acceptance”: licking and chewing, head low, ear to the trainer, etcetera. At this point, the pressure from the trainer is released and the horse has the opportunity to come into the center. Length of time before “join-up” is achieved varies between horses, trainers, and environments, but the eventual outcome is the horse following the trainer demurely around the pen.
The common explanation for this behavior is that the trainer is utilizing “equine body language” to communicate their wishes to the horse. The idea is that, as a lead horse, you are sending the horse away from you. Being alone away from his herd is a horse’s worst nightmare, so pretty soon he’s going to want to come back. Then he exhibits submission behavior to be allowed back into your little herd of two, this time accepting the fact that if he’s going to hang out with you, you’re going to be the leader.
That’s a synopsis off the top of my head from when I read “The Man Who Listens to Horses”, so correct me if I’m wrong. I think I’ve got the general gist of it – which is hard, considering that it’s… well, a complicated and intelligent-sounding form of nonsense.
Recent research by Cathrynne Henshall, MSc candidate and professional trainer, points out that achieving join-up has little to do with your horse-mimicking abilities and everything to do with “applying an aversive stimulus which elicits fear, and then rewarding horses by turning off the frightening stimulus.”
Watch what happens when the human trainer is replaced by a remote control car:
“We believe the results of this research suggest that round pen training may rely on the offset of states of fear, anxiety, or fatigue to reinforce the target behavior of approaching and following the trainer,” said Henshall. “…I certainly felt the ethical dilemma of deliberately frightening these horses, but that’s the reality of what is going on in round pens around the world,” she said. “If it means that people either chase their horses less or think more clearly about what they’re doing so as to minimize that flight response, then this experiment will have ultimately resulted in better welfare for animals.”
Read more here:
Remote-Controlled Cars Used to Study Round Pen Training
A barefoot hoof trimmer, a singer/songwriter, an amateur farmer – these are some of the hats Kesia Nagata wears when she’s not full to bursting with wondrous equine co-creation.
10 thoughts on “VIDEO: Join Up and Round Pen Training: Fact or Fiction?”
Wow!! That remote car video is crazy. Every show I’ve ever watched makes that join up thing look like the horse is so close and loving…
As a new horse owner/person ( only since a year and a half I am involved with horses, I am 43) I have found the idea of sending the animal with whom I have such a good trust and connection (build up by being gentle and accepting toward him)away from me absolutely weird! How on earth can you ever get any animal to trust you by suddenly sending it away? I think he will just follow you afterwards out of confusion and trying to make up to you. Not at all a good start in any animal/human relationship in my opinion. It stopped my interest in Monty Robert’ s ideas the moment I picked one of his books to see what he is about.
From my limited personal experience, I would say the real issue with this method is that it is applied backwards – we frighten the horse in order to elicit a version of Stockholm syndrome. I have seen horses ’round pen’ another horse. My gelding chased a flighty young Arab mare all over the pasture, but it was because he wanted her to calm down, not frighten her. She was already frightened and acting a fool, disrupting his desired herd calm and quiet. He would stop occasionally as if to ask ‘are you done yet?’ It was really quite funny, this overweight, slow little moose of a horse trying to outdo a spunky little Arab. So rather than engender fear, he was trying to get her to work through her anxiety and tell her that her behavior was NOT acceptable and please get over it. I do think it can help an already frightened horse to work through its anxiety, redirect its energy and focus on the human rather than its fear, but as a way to create trust and connection it is backwards. I do believe it was a site better than previous ‘training’ methods, but we can always improve our relationships rather than stand still.
I love your story Amy and thank you so much for sharing it as I think it brings an important perspective to this discussion. What I also notice about your horses’ natural behaviour is that they were in a pasture. I think of the psychological difference between someone chasing me in a field vs a roundpen and I would choose the field anyday – even as a human, the round pen feels panicky to me.
I remember when I started learning ‘natural horsemanship’ and entered a roundpen for the first time with a horse. I did not feel safe at all! I felt squished, claustrophobic and yucky.
The other point is that horses don’t choose to run in circles if they have the choice. And research shows that it’s not good for them either:
So… not saying there would never be a time that it might be beneficial to work with a horse in a round pen… just saying it would probably be pretty rare and there are better paths for sure.
But as you pointed out – is round penning better than sacking out or hog-tying? Absolutely! So it was a big step forward in horse training at the time. But we certainly have even better options and paths to relationship and collaborative learning now.
Wow, this really made some things clear to me. I’ve been wondering for a while why horses tend to follow people that chase them away. I’ve known for a long time that this is their normal response. In fact, I practiced this exercise with many horses myself, and found very consistent results. But one day when I was showing a young riding student how I did this chasing/following thing with my pony friend Dakota, I (somewhat suddenly) realized I didn’t know WHY he was following me. I couldn’t explain it. Then I started questioning it, and then I stopped doing it… but I never really figured it out beyond realizing that he was probably afraid of being chased more. Which I guess is really what you mentioned in your article here, but… well, you just worded it a lot better than I did and now I understand it more than before.
So thank you for that.
I’ve been thinking about this too Stephanie. And going back to where Monty Roberts came up with it – from observing the wild horses doing this to a member who was misbehaving. So the lead mare (for example) would drive the unsafe horse away, it would try to come back, she’d drive it away, etc. Then eventually let it rejoin the herd. From what I’ve observed, this would be AFTER the mare perceived a shift in energy/intention from the miscreant signaling that the horse has learned his lesson, and is ready to behave differently (keep the herd safe).
But here’s where extrapolating this herd dynamic to “join up” doesn’t make sense to me. Firstly, there’s the issue of the round pen or other enclosed space. So the horse CANNOT get away from you. Right there, you no longer have the same dynamic. Secondly, where is the herd? If you’re mimicking wild horse behaviour and truly working “at liberty” the horse should be able to leave you and rejoin it’s herd at any time.
So then we’re left with the explanations related by Kesia in this post – and your own musing that your horse was probably afraid of being chased more.
I’ve been doing a lot of experimenting with my former wildies this year – just working/playing with them on an open 10 acres with the entire herd at liberty. It’s been very interesting to me that when truly given a choice, many times they’re like, “Nah, I’m too tired” or “I’d rather eat right now” or they’ll follow me, play for a bit, and then want to graze or play with each other. And it’s NOT personal! It does not mean they’re not bonded to me, they don’t love me, or any of the tests we give our horses to “prove” that they love us and that we have a good connection with them.
Just like horses in a herd don’t boss each other around, or make a suggestion, “let’s go to the waterhole!” and the others may say, “Yeah, I’m thirsty too” or “Meh. Maybe later.” It has nothing to do with their bond or relationship with each other.
And then sometimes when they say, “Nah, you go ahead, I’ll just graze” and I insist: No, come on, this will be really good you gotta come with me! And I push on their neck, or loop a rope around their neck and apply a pinky finger worth of pressure, then they say, “Ok, fine, since it means so much to you” and they then come willingly with me. And then sometimes they’re happy they followed me and joined whatever idea/game I presented. And other times they’re like, “You’re a bonehead, can you see I’ve not really wanted to do this the whole time and thus neither of us have had much fun, but oh no, you had to insist – was it worth it??” And I take a deep breath and blow out a sigh and go back to musing about what it is I REALLY want in/from my relationship with my posse!
Oh my gosh, YES. That thing about you going, “No, come on, this will be really good.” I am the same way with the horses I work with. Like, if I want to practice something and they just want to graze, I push a little bit and say stuff like, “Come on, please! It’ll be good for you and I can’t practice without you.” Sometimes they comply and sometimes they refuse, and I think either way it’s totally fine. I mean, I wouldn’t threaten a human friend with punishments if he/she didn’t want to go skateboarding with me. Why did I EVER think that threatening was what I needed to do with horses if they didn’t want to do something with me? I guess I just did what I was taught and never really thought about it. So sad.
Things are so different now, though, and I’m so thankful. I’ve found that treating horses like good friends makes me reconsider a lot of the things I think I want to do with them. I used to just choose some exercise (like maybe Parelli’s “circle game”) and start trying to get my horse to go in circles around me, without ever really thinking about WHY we should do that, or whether or not it was any fun at all for the horse. My goals used to be so shallow compared to how they are now. “Get better at the circle game.” That was a goal. A goal without a reason. I wanted to improve just to improve, without thinking about what I really wanted out of the improvement.
Turns out what I really wanted was a friendship, and most of what I was doing was only impeding that friendship.
Oh well. We live and learn, right?
I posted a long time ago about there being less and less evidence for horse herds even having leaders – definitely something I have noticed as my 3 become a tighter and tighter family unit, and especially now that we have so much space. They never drive each other unless it’s a simple “stop that” or Spero (the gelding) being an overbearing bug. It’s momentary and results in a few steps distance, which may or may not be maintained, but is certainly not “banishment” from the herd. All movement comes from desire or need – one horse decided they want to eat over there so they all go over there. Too many bugs, let’s go back to the shed. They follow me out back “off-leash” but only until Amalia gets nervous and takes everybody home. Distance is voluntary and nobody forces anyone to stay away. I wonder how we got so far from reality – oh right. Those pesky human brains getting all excited and making something out of nothing…
I kind of think that we just assumed they have leaders because WE tend to have leaders. Maybe.
I think we like to justify our thirst for dominance with pseudo-science and half-baked ideas 😉 Or, more kindly, we see the world through whatever lens is held up before us. It was militant, patriarchal and classist lenses that helped form much of what we now consider science…and therefore I think our observations of nature often lean unconsciously in those directions!
But what you’re saying is totally true – we often just try to understand things through what is familiar to us personally or culturally.